Japan surrendered to the United States in 1945, and French forces returned to take control of Indochina. Unlike the British Empire, the French at first had no inclination to grant independence to their colonies. As a result, the forces Ho Chi Minh commanded against the Japanese remained together to fight the French. Many other groups in Indochina also resisted the French—most of these groups were not, like Ho’s group, Communists. For about a decade the French struggled to maintain control over Indochina, but they eventually relented. Not wanting to grant independence, they had done no work to prepare the native people for self-government and leadership. With American guidance, Indochina was divided into three countries according to culture: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Vietnam was further divided into two countries. As the Yalta agreement had resulted in two Germanies—East Germany, which was communist, and West Germany, which was not—and also two Koreas—North Korea, which was communist, and South Korea, which was not—a similar divide was suggested for Vietnam. North Vietnam would be ruled by Ho and the Communists; South Vietnam would be governed by a group that was not Communist.
Vietnamese people were given sixty days to relocate. Ninety thousand left South Vietnam to join Ho and the Communists in the north. One million (out of a total population of thirteen million) left the north for the south. Others tried to move south before the deadline but were deterred by Communist forces. Ho followed the example of Joseph Stalin in dealing with political opposition—anyone who disagreed with him was arrested and imprisoned. Many of his opponents were killed; the rest were “re-educated” into Communism, often through torture.
South Vietnam therefore began its existence with a refugee resettlement crisis. Ngo Dinh Diem was the first leader of the South Vietnamese government. He aimed to provide a stable democracy, but under current conditions it was not possible to grant all the freedoms that Americans take for granted. Diem’s leadership managed to quell disturbances from several non-Communist groups that opposed his government, but he did not succeed in maintaining a government free from corruption and brutality. Meanwhile, by the end of the 1950s, North Vietnam had quietly entered southern Laos and established a series of travel routes known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Using these roads, North Vietnam was able to smuggle four thousand fighters and copious supplies to continue undermining the stability of South Vietnam.
By the summer of 1963, the military leaders in South Vietnam had decided to establish a coup to take power away from Diem. President Kennedy reluctantly agreed that Diem had to go, although he hoped for a peaceful transfer of power. Instead, Diem and his brother were killed during the military takeover. Three weeks later, Kennedy himself was assassinated, leaving American involvement in South Vietnam in the hands of Lyndon Johnson.
Johnson and his advisors (many of them continuing from the Kennedy White House) recognized the need to support South Vietnam militarily to ensure its survival. Congress at first enthusiastically gave Johnson full permission to send troops to help quell disturbances in South Vietnam. Regrettably, the American plan was to wage a limited war, only engaging the enemy within South Vietnam, trying to distinguish loyal citizens from rebels and insurgents. Trained troops and military supplies continued to enter South Vietnam from the north by way of Laos and Cambodia. Over the next four years, Johnson sent more and more Americans to fight in South Vietnam, until half a million Americans were there by the end of 1968.
Meanwhile, the war was becoming increasingly unpopular in the United States. President Johnson was not able to explain to the country why our soldiers were fighting in Vietnam. The purpose of the Cold war was to contain communism. Experts in the United States government feared that if all of Vietnam became Communist, Laos and Cambodia would do the same, followed by Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, perhaps even India. (This was called the “domino theory.”) Some historians say that if South Vietnam lost to the communists in the 1960s, that scenario might have occurred in the 1970s. As it is, diplomacy and foreign aid helped keep most of those countries out of the communist sphere, with the loss of only Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
To be continued… J.